Behind the Scenes of BIG SONIA: A Small Story Writ Large in Film

Interview with director Leah Warshawksi of documentary film Big Sonia – on women in films, finding the truest version of your story, and the #SmallMattersBig push for an Academy Award nomination.

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Cheryl Laughlin reads for the Nashville Film Fest, grass-roots hustles for 20K Films documentaries… and it’s possible she ran through the house with her Top 10% in the Nicholl Fellowship announcement like Anne Hathaway with her Oscar (cuz she’s geeky like that.) You can follow her on Twitter: @cheryllaughlin

Big Sonia Film Awards

I have film wanderlust when it comes to indie movies. I randomly check in on what’s playing at various film fests, so I can watch if the films play in my area. Gotta support small films on the big screen. It’s a karma thing.

So recently, while feeling nostalgic about my Ohio roots, I landed on Big Sonia playing at the Cleveland Film Festival. And this is what grabbed me by the heart and shook me to the core (and I’m not prone to hyperbole):

“Standing tall at 4’8′, Sonia is a business owner of a beloved 35-year-old store facing eviction because of a dying mall. But at 91 years old, she is also – one of the last remaining Holocaust survivors in Kansas City. Sonia’s enormous personality and fragile frame mask the horrors she endured. At 15, she watched her mother disappear behind gas chamber doors…”

At that point, I was all in.

Script EXTRA: Conversation with Sheila Nevins President HBO Documentary Films 

Having grown up in an old school Polish-American church, I’m beyond proud of my Polish heritage. Pierogis and kielbasa just scratch the surface of what I love about that side of the family. But as a shy introvert, it’s the bold forthright tenacity of the Polish that intrigues me the most.

I knew I had to ask for a behind the scenes look into how a small personal story grows into a film that inspires with #SmallMattersBig, sweeps eight film fest awards, and pushes forward with Academy Award aspirations.

Lucky for me, director Leah Warshawksi made time in a busy promotion and shooting schedule to answer questions – ranging from the role of women in documentary films and how to find the truest version of your story.

How Women Treat Women in Films

I asked Leah about Jessica Chastain’s recent comments about the depiction of women in films at the Cannes Film Festival as “disturbing” and calling for more proactive female storytellers.

Cheryl: Do you find female documentary filmmakers are at the forefront of women-positive films?

Leah: Well, you’re asking during the Wonder Woman premiere week, so that’s a tough one… I definitely know a lot of female documentary filmmakers – and great docs about women – but I think it still comes down to how we can all make sure our films are SEEN. And some of those challenges are the same for men and women. I’m always looking for examples of strong and powerful women to model my own life after, and I think documentaries are a great avenue for inspiration.

Cheryl: Do you think strong real women in documentaries can influence the women we see in feature films?

Leah:  I certainly hope so! We would love to make a narrative version of Big Sonia, and Sonia has already said she thinks Barbara Streisand should play her in the movie. Sonia has always wanted to be a movie star, so in a lot of ways her dreams are coming true with the documentary being made about her – although not in the Hollywood sense she had hoped for.

When A Small Story Grows Big

Big Sonia Film - Roise O'Donell EndorseLeah happens to be Sonia’s granddaughter, but she never fully knew her grandmother’s story hidden below her everyday work at the store.

Cheryl: How did you uncover the story for Big Sonia? And how did you know this personal story had bigger meaning beyond your family?

Leah: There are many Holocaust survivors in my family – but Sonia is the most outspoken. I was always interested in filming in her tailor shop, and one day we went with her and her daughter Regina to see them speak at Lakewood Middle School. It wasn’t until that day we fully understood the impact that Sonia has in the world – and we knew at that moment, BIG SONIA was larger than just my family. We continued to tag along on some of her speaking engagements at schools, prisons, organizations and seeing how she literally changes people’s lives is what inspired us to continue making the film. We never intended to make a “family film” – we always wanted the story to be universal and relatable for EVERYone.

Script EXTRA: Researching Your Scripts

Cheryl: When did Big Sonia outgrow its short film roots? How do you rewrite and storyboard a film that expands into a full feature film?

Leah: Four years into production, Sonia got an eviction notice for her tailor shop. That was the day we knew we would make a feature film versus a short. Her eviction provided a story arc for the longer feature because we didn’t know how she would survive or what would happen next. We knew there would be a happy ending but we didn’t know the details.

We have a talented post-production team who spent many hours writing story notes and re-arranging notecards on our editor’s office wall. We never intended for the film to be a feature, but we could not be more proud of how it turned out.

A Film Unafraid of Reaching Higher

Big Sonia Film - DocumentaryLeah channeled Sonia’s strong spirit and made a big decision to partner with the women-strong crowdfunding site, Women You Should Fund, to keep the momentum going with Big Sonia.

Cheryl: When did you decide to push the envelop and see if Big Sonia could reach the ultimate audience, the Academy Awards?

Leah: We spent a lot of effort on finishing Big Sonia properly – from color correction to mixing the audio at Skywalker Ranch. We intended for the film to be seen and experienced in a movie theater. Theatrical release was always our #1 goal, and we’re not ready to give up on our BIG dreams. It’s not the easy road – and funding is really tough – but we owe it to ourselves and to Sonia to at least try.

Big Sonia Film Directors

Big Sonia Film Directors

Cheryl: By the way, what does Sonia think of the big award aspirations?

Leah: I’m pretty sure Sonia already has her dress picked out, so how could we not try to get there?

Follow Big Sonia’s journey for a theater release and Academy Award nomination at:

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